How Smart Technology Can Prepare Electrical Grids for Climate Emergencies

Over the past several years, a series of climate crises — wildfires, floods and record temperature highs and lows in Texas and the Pacific Northwest — have highlighted the vulnerabilities in one of the most critical pieces of our nation’s infrastructure: the electrical grid. As recently as twenty years ago, discussion of the electrical grid would have been relatively infrequent, because most people took it for granted. Everyone thought the lights would turn on, refrigerators would run, the AC would work as expected, and, if something went wrong, it would be because of blown fuses or downed power lines. Today, that is no longer the case, and we can’t take continuous operation of electrical grids for granted. The question is: how do we fix that?

The State of the Electrical Grid
First, we must understand the problems with the grid as it exists today. What we think of as the electrical grid is really a collection of smaller local grids that combine into three primary sectors in the United States: the Western, Eastern and Texas Interconnects. At present, the three major interconnects exchange little to no power between them and operate independently. This divide causes challenges when one interconnect becomes overloaded, as we have seen in Texas. The interconnects, by nature of being independent, do not yet have effective infrastructure for power sharing between them.

Even within each interconnect, however, grid infrastructure remains complicated and difficult for providers to navigate. Interconnects were built around centralized power sources, such as hydroelectric dams or carbon-based power plants, and generally only support one-way electricity flow from that centralized power source. If that source fails or if more power is needed to meet demand, the system itself is not designed to readily connect to new power sources or adjust the flow of power to facilities or communities in crisis. An empty skyscraper might stay powered, for instance, while homes in residential neighborhoods would go without.

Smart Solutions
By incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) into grid infrastructure, we can flatten the grid. This will enable providers to direct electricity to consumers from the best available source at any given time. Such smart solutions will decentralize power sources and remove bottlenecks that arise during emergencies. It will further enable 100% adoption of clean and renewable energy sources, in line with President Biden’s goal to create a carbon pollution-free power sector in the U.S. by 2035. A smart grid is the key to reaching the U.S. goal.

Over the past several years, Intel has been working with governments and partners around the world to implement cutting-edge smart grid solutions in real-world applications. In the U.S., Intel teamed up with Southern California Edison (SCE) to develop a proof of concept to transform electrical substation relays into virtualized applications via secure, scalable operational infrastructure and servers pre-configured to SCE needs. This solution ensures the highest levels of cybersecurity in advanced computing at the substation level while fostering use of renewable energy.

In keeping with its work to digitalize substations, Intel has also partnered with Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) in Malaysia to deploy virtualized computing infrastructure and applications in the grid’s substations. This digital system creates a more agile, flexible and manageable grid, which can be reconfigured to meet the electrical grid’s changing needs as more renewable energy is incorporated. Secondary substations will soon be getting the smart treatment, thanks to Intel’s work with the Edge for Secondary Substation (E4S) Alliance in Europe. Together, Intel and E4S Alliance are working together to enable real-time smart monitoring and controls.

All of these new smart solutions help lower capital and operating expenses, enabling better and more efficient management of the grid. In the future, we see this essential utility being digitalized and integrated into flexible smart systems that enable collaboration, adaptation and adoption of emerging technologies and renewable sources. By working together, governments, utilities and businesses like Intel can help solve the biggest challenges facing the electrical grid now, as well as prepare for the clean, sustainable future we need in order to combat climate change.